Friday, April 28, 2017

The Identity Imperative

As we listen to and look at national and world news reports we see evidence of enormous conflicts between people who have identified themselves with very different ways of thinking and feeling and behaving. People who identify with different religions are at war with each other; people of the same religion who identify with different interpretations of it are at war with each other; people who identify with different political systems are at war with each other; people who identify with different interpretations of the same political system are at war with each other.

On a more local level, people who identify with different athletic teams in the same sport seem to be getting into sometimes serious fights with each other more frequently; people who identify with specific groups called gangs often have serious fights with each other, as well as with non-gang members of the society around them; and identity conflicts of a serious nature often arise between families or even individual strangers.

Two important questions that come out of this observation are: "Is there a fundamental urge to identify with something - an 'identity imperative,' so to speak - that is more powerful than other urges?" and "why does such identification so often lead to conflict?"

To answer the first question, the urge to identify with something--an idea, a belief, a philosopy, a religion, a way of life, a political system, a group of some kind, a territory, or even another person--is no more nor no less than a combination of the two fundamental urges of all human beings to connect and to be effective.

We have an initial urge to connect because feeling connected, feeling ourselves to be part of something else, is a source of pleasure. By itself this leads to pleasurable relationships with people, animals, plants, and other aspects of the world around us. When the thing we connect to also helps us to feel more effective or powerful, another source of pleasure, then we have a strong tendency to identify ourselves with that thing, to consider it and us to be virtually identical. That's why so many people proudly declare that they are "members" of something or other (the word "member" means a "limb" or an integral part of something). It's also why people like to wear clothing, costumes, badges, pins, and tatoos that help them feel more connected and powerful.

The answer to the second question above is that the more insecure we feel about our connection and our effectiveness, the more fearful we become about their loss, which leads to painful feelings of isolation and helplessness. When this insecurity and its related fear become intense enough there may be a very strong suppression reaction. A common effect of this reaction is to perceive contrasting or opposing forms of identity as a threat to one's very existence. 

So a losing sports team, or its fans, may feel compelled to fight the winners, or their fans, and even destroy anything associated with them. Do something that an insecure identifier interprets as an insult to his or her source of identity and you may receive a death threat, or worse. In some cases people become willing to sacrifice their lives to maintain their own identity as well as the "life" of what they identify with. That will not happen, however, unless such people have decided that their own lives have no worth in any other context. Self sacrifice with the intention to harm members of another identity is therefore a desperate attempt on the part of extremely insecure people to maintain a sense of belonging and personal power.

The more secure you feel about your identifications, the more tolerant you naturally are of other identifications. If you have no doubts about the goodness or rightness of your ideas, beliefs, or behaviors, then you tend not to care about the ideas, beliefs, and behaviors of others (as long as they don't physically threaten you, of course). 

On the other hand, the more insecure you feel about your identifications, the more you will react with fear and anger and the desire to destroy anything and and anyone that doesn't agree with your way of thinking, feeling, and behaving. Unfortunately, although this is essentially a position of weakness, it can cause great damage among those who are basically more tolerant, but not yet secure enough or wise enough to realize that tolerance is not the same as unbounded permissiveness.

Ma'alahi ka ha'ina, pu'ika'ika hana
"Simple the explanation, difficult the execution

Friday, April 14, 2017


While teaching workshops, especially when I'm teaching about relationships, I am often asked, "How can I trust people," or "What do you do when someone betrays your trust?" And some will make the comment, "I've learned not to trust anyone."

It's a difficult topic to explain, mainly because so many people are confused about what it really means to trust someone.

In its most simple form, to trust someone is to have the confidence, faith, or expectation that a person will do what he or she has said they will do. That trust is considered misplaced or broken or betrayed (depending on how emotional one becomes about it) when the person does something else instead, regardless of any extenuating circumstances. So a child may wail endlessly to a parent that "You broke your promise!" even when a parent was not able to carry out a promise for a very good reason. However, it has to be said, a lot of people, sometimes including politicians, make promises with no intention of ever carrying them out.

A more complicated form of trust is when you expect people to behave in a certain way because they have always behaved in that way, or because they should behave in that way (according to your rules), or just because you want them to behave in that way, whether they have ever promised to do so or not. I know a number of people who have been disappointed or felt betrayed because I didn't do what they wanted me to do, or what they thought I should have done (without telling me beforehand, of course). And, I have to admit, there have been occasions when I have felt disappointed or betrayed when people didn't do what I expected or wanted them to do.

Both of these kinds of trust can be lost very easily if we blame others for how we feel about their behavior. It can also make it much more difficult for us to trust anyone else in the future, because most of us don't like to feel bad, and a lot of us are even afraid of feeling bad.
Since I believe strongly that we are all responsible for our own feelings, I decided to find a way to trust more and feel disappointed less. My solution may not be satisfactory for everyone, but I present it here in case some will find it useful.

First, I looked for a form of human behavior that was common to all people everywhere. What I found was that, invariably, all people everywhere will always do what they do. Therefore, that allows me to trust 100% that everyone will always do what they do, no matter what I may think or feel about it.

Second, I found that all people everywhere will always do what they believe is best for them. This gets a little more involved, because some people believe that following their own self interest is more important than anything else, some believe that doing what others want is also best for them, some believe that keeping promises is best for them, and on and on. Nevertheless, it means that I can trust 100% that people will always do what they believe is best for them, whatever that may be.
Third, as a consequence, it means that I cannot trust 100% that anyone will always do what I want or expect them to do. Or, to put it more positively, I can trust 100% that someone at some time will do something other than what I want or expect them to do.

When that happens I limit any feelings of disappointment by taking responsibility for those feelings and reminding myself of the first and second forms of behavior above (and I never use the emotionally-loaded word "betrayal" anymore). Then my next step is to make other plans that do not require specific people to do specific things.

As a result, I am able to maintain good friendships with people who didn't do what I wanted or expected because it didn't coincide with what they believed were their best interests, and even work with them in other areas where our interests do coincide. So, trusting people to keep their promises, to behave as expected, to do what they "should" do or what you want them to do is always a risk.

Trust is very important, to be sure. Our society and economy could not function unless a majority of the people involved did what was expected of them. As individuals, I believe that we can all function better if we understand how trust works and why, sometimes, it doesn't.